3 keys for Astros to take control of ALCS in G3

October 15th, 2018

HOUSTON -- The Astros dropped their first game of the 2018 postseason with their loss in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park on Sunday, but Houston accomplished its goal of seizing home-field advantage, sending the series home to Minute Maid Park with an opportunity to take control.

Can the Astros hold down the highest-scoring offense in the league? The Red Sox broke out for seven runs in Game 2, pouncing on early before tacking on a pair of late runs to give some much-needed wiggle room.

If Houston is to bounce back with a win in Game 3, here are three keys that would help the Astros' cause:

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Get Altuve's bat going

followed up his 2017 AL MVP Award-winning regular season with a superb postseason, starting off with a three-homer game against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS and never slowing down. Altuve slashed .310/.388/.634 with seven homers and 14 RBIs during the Astros' 18-game march to the championship, proving his regular season was no fluke.

The second baseman had another solid season in 2018, though he missed about four weeks from late July to late August with a right knee injury, one he aggravated during Game 2 of the ALDS against the Indians. The knee seems to still be bothering Altuve, prompting manager AJ Hinch to use Altuve as the designated hitter for Game 3.

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"It's bugging him," Hinch said. "He's doing everything he can to play. He doesn't want to make a big deal out of it, and I know moving him to the DH spot brings the first couple of questions about it, but he'll do anything we ask, which is commendable."

Altuve was 0-for-7 to start the ALCS before hitting an RBI single in the ninth inning of Game 2 against Kimbrel. When Altuve is at his best, so are the Astros; he had a .910 OPS in the team's 92 wins with him in the lineup, a number that dropped to .681 in their 45 losses when he played.

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Make Eovaldi work hard

Unlike many other starters, Boston's Game 3 starter doesn't typically get hit hard in the first inning. His 3.86 ERA in the opening frame is in line with the second (3.43), third (4.19) and fourth (3.12), while he tends to be at his strongest in the fifth, where he's posted a minuscule 1.12 ERA.

When Eovaldi gets to the sixth, that's where things fall apart (8.18 ERA), but despite his stellar seven-inning performance against the Yankees, it's been far more common for Eovaldi to be out of a game long before then.

In his 11 regular-season starts after being traded to the Red Sox, Eovaldi pitched more than five innings only four times, including only twice in his final nine starts. The hard-throwing righty is susceptible to pitch-count issues, and he hasn't thrown 100 pitches in a game since June 26.

"They have lot of aggressive guys in the lineup," Eovaldi said. "They swing early in the counts. Not too many of them like to walk."

That may be more of a perception than a truth; Astros hitters have drawn 29 walks in five postseason games, and their 7.03 plate-appearances-per-walk rate is the lowest of the five AL postseason teams. In the first two games of the ALCS, Houston has walked 15 times, with drawing six of them by himself.

If the Astros can work deep counts and prevent Eovaldi -- a Houston native who will be pitching in front of family and friends -- from getting on a roll, they could get to the bullpen sooner rather than later. And speaking of the bullpen …

Take advantage of Boston's relief corps

The Red Sox bullpen pitched well in Game 2, as Matt Barnes, and combined for 3 1/3 scoreless innings after taking the ball from with two outs in the fifth.

But Porcello -- Boston's Game 4 starter -- won't be available out of the bullpen in Game 3, leaving Barnes, Brasier, Joe Kelly, , and as the group charged with getting the ball from Eovaldi to Kimbrel.

The first four pitchers in that group have combined for 16 2/3 innings of one run-ball (none earned) in the postseason, holding hitters to a .059 average and no extra-base hits. Those are stunning stats given that Boston's bullpen had been considered its weak link. Oddly enough, the reliever that has struggled the most this month has been Kimbrel, who left the Fenway fans holding their breath in the ninth inning of Game 2 before ultimately closing it out.

"We're going to use him in spots that we feel he's going to be successful," Boston manager Alex Cora said of Kimbrel. "Hopefully he pitches a lot the next three days, and that will be good news for us."

Kimbrel has faced 17 batters this postseason, allowing four hits (including a home run and a double), two walks and a hit batsman. He nearly gave up huge home runs to both and Bregman, though both fly balls settled on the warning track to take Kimbrel off the hook.

During the past two postseasons, Kimbrel's ERA in five outings is 8.44. If the Astros are down by a run or two in the ninth, the sight of Kimbrel on the mound isn't going to necessarily be an unwelcome one for Houston.